I'll never forget the cornfields

The mornings are crisper now in Portland, Ore. The sun rises later and sets earlier, and the local farmers' markets are running out of their medley of green, yellow, and orange heirloom tomatoes. But the bins of fresh corn and pumpkin are overflowing this week, and I am reminded of my teenage corn detasseling days back in Minnesota.

Autumn always brought great relief; the two months of hard, sweaty work were over, and the results of our labor were visible in supermarkets everywhere. Every time I eat fresh corn, especially this time of year, I remember that first summer out in the fields.

They told us to wear raincoats, and they brought large green garbage bags for anyone who'd forgotten.

In late July, in central Minnesota, in the middle of an open cornfield where the sun burns the dirt a deep, dark red, raincoats sound like some cruel joke. But as we set out at 6:15 a.m., 40 detasselers ranging from age 12 (me) to 40 (the bus driver and head foreman), those of us who chose to forego the jackets learned a lesson. Fast.

Even though the sun was peering down at us from the eastern horizon, scattering shards of light over the endless rows of corn, the field was heavy with dew. It was a dazzling sight, really, every bead of water shimmering against the early pink light.

But as I made my way through my first row, every stalk of corn I passed assaulted my limbs, the long green leaves clinging to my T-shirt and cutoffshorts like some relentless carwash soaking every nook and cranny.

And it only got worse. As the sun climbed higher - I would come to call it a big ball of fire - the stalks went from water-logged to dry in a hurry, and every leaf cut into my hands, arms, legs, and face.

The work was far from glamorous - although I hear that Cindy Crawford did it as a teenager in Illinois - but for a preteen with nothing but "house chores" to list as experience on a résumé, it was good enough.

Corn detasseling is a simple process. In a cornfield, there are four rows of female corn for every row of male plants. The male rows are slightly darker and squatter, making for a pretty sort of geometry when looking at the fields from afar.

When the female plants begin to produce ears, the silks gather the pollen from the remaining male rows, a process that produces a hybrid plant with the best characteristics of the male and female plants that made it.

Our job was to pull out the tops of the female plants - the tassels - each person taking one row at a time, and dropping them on the ground, where they would fertilize the next season's crop. We used to joke that we were helping the males and females get along better.

This was the first real job I'd ever had, and I made minimum wage - which in 1992 was $4.25 an hour. Rumor had it a small crew of illegal Mexican immigrants would follow in our footsteps and clean up the tassels we'd missed. Some people said the day laborers made as little as $2 an hour, which they couldn't complain about since they weren't in the United States legally.

This upset me. I wanted to find them, to talk to them, to watch them work, but they always kept their distance.

The days were long, and the work was hard. Every afternoon I would slump home from the bus stop, my scalp itchy with dirt and my limbs exhausted.

For years I kept this job on my résumé, at the bottom of an eclectic chronology that included waitress, piano teacher, lifeguard, and tour guide in Russia. It was the perfect conversation starter; everyone wanted to know what it was like toiling through those rows of corn.

But as much as I complained at the time, and as hard as it was to climb out of bed at 5:30 a.m., I held the job for four summers, until I was a junior in high school, when I found out I could earn three times as much teaching swimming.

Nowadays I tend to laugh when I tell friends about my first job. My field is now a desk with a laptop, and my Minnesota farm days seem a past and distant world.

And yet I can still remember how it felt to be a part of the changing season, to watch the sun break through the horizon ever later as July ran into August and August into the first days of school.

We measured time in the height of the cornstalks: On Day 1 we were bending over the rows to pull out tassels, and by the end of the season, they were so tall we had to grab each stalk by its center, pull it toward us, and reach in to yank out the giant core.

It was then, toward the end of detasseling season - when our tanned, svelte bodies were dwarfed by those thick, green giants - that I would sometimes let the other detasselers fly past and pause, silent, deep in the shadows of so much life, and listen to the wind and the bugs and the distant chatter. And I would breathe in the smells of so much green and know that I was standing right smack in the center of a certain kind of bliss.

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